Arts Desk

DC Jazz Festival: The Third Wheel

Third Wheel

On the festival flyers and Twins schedule, they were listed as Double Date: a collective improvisation between two sets of partners, saxophonists Brad Linde and Sarah Hughes, and guitarist Anthony Pirog and cellist Janel Leppin (better known as Janel and Anthony). But Linde got stranded on his way back from the Banff Jazz Workshop in Alberta, Canada—"Brad stood us up," Pirog announced from the stage. So the group became Third Wheel, and the improvisation went on Sunday night as scheduled.

Did the 1950s produce any sci-fi noir? It would certainly give some context to the sound the trio made. Pirog and Leppin—who are more accustomed to working in abstraction—were the sci-fi part of that formula, often sounding like the bleeps, klaxons, and otherworldly effects lurking behind a plywood spaceship set. (Especially Leppin, who would often slither a hand slowly up and down the fingerboard, making freakish but controlled squeals.) That's meant as a compliment: to hear those reverb-heavy noises and tones on a cello and guitar is to appreciate them in an entirely new dimension.Hughes, naturally, was the noir. Her chops on the alto sax give off something of an Ornette Coleman vibe; like him, she is ultimately a melodic player (if a more tonal one). Hughes, however, took her playing down darker paths than Coleman ever did; at times she sounded anguished, at times gloomy. There was more than a hint of guile on there, too. It wasn't hard to hear Hughes underpinning images of a hardboiled detective skulking into the dark.

I write this, though, as if the trio were moving in two different directions. Nothing of the kind is true. These musicians are nothing if not careful listeners and responders. For all Hughes' melodicism, there was one point when, in synergy with the alien staccato of her colleagues, she outright removed the mouthpiece from her sax and squeaked through it as though it were a duck call. And even though the set was improvised, it wasn't unusual to hear two of them in unison—and, about 30 minutes into the set, all three, until they moved to create a lush modal arrangement on the spot, helped by loops from Pirog's electronic equipment. It sounded so good I actually got up to make sure they weren't reading (probably annoying other patrons in the process).

Actually, they did do one written tune, Pirog's "Edana the Painter." It was a more plaintive, simpler tune than the abstractions; Leppin's bowed cello and Hughes' descending figures gave it the feel of an Eastern European folk song. It was as effective as one, too, with Hughes' brittle solo line seeming to sob against the melancholy pathos from Pirog and Leppin.

Experimental music seems to be ascendant in D.C., or at least is having a prime moment. May it continue beyond the festival's calendar. Even if it doesn't, though, nights like Sunday ensure that a brief moment is still one of value.

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